Woman-Constellations for Man

May 17, 2009
By Anonymous

Woman—Constellations for Man

Culture—past and present—is like an ancient city, a riot of colors and lights melding together history, language, and tradition. It is the conduit to the self. I am Chinese American, like my mother, and her mother before her. I can feel them sometimes—the idiosyncrasies I have inherited. I felt one of them curiously strong in a certain incident. I was merely a child. We had taken a trip to Yellowstone National Park in South Dakota, and had successfully lost ourselves in the vastness of the West. I remember seeing the caribou, the buffalo, and the prairie dogs poking their heads out of their holes against a fiery sunset splashed behind billowing valleys. My father was arguing with my mother respectfully—as dictated by custom—about a map. Everything she said he refuted swiftly. As with all disputes, their voices rose several decibels, my mother’s softer tones receding behind those of my father’s. At last, my mother became silent. I felt a collapse had taken place—of what I did not know at the time. I love my father. He is an unshakeable man deeply rooted in Chinese tradition, and I know he loves my mother, but not enough in that moment to see the desperation, the harrowing acceptance, the calm surrender that haunted her eyes. He was so blind. She did not know it, but I saw it all, with a child’s quiet anxiety. My mother has beautiful eyes. They are the color of almonds, sparkling just as the constellations do. That day, they did not. It had only been a map. Even then, he could not defer.
It was then that I began to feel the helplessness, the intense dearth of my own questioning. I had never challenged tradition before. I had hardly scratched the surface. A desperate panic overwhelmed my body leaving it in a mind-numbing state. Looking back now I see clearly the scene. I see a girl sitting in the back seat. What a pathetic sight she was and what a lowly state I found her in—a deaf, dumb, blind and mute creature stumbling in fetters that bound me to a moribund tradition of silence. Many times, I felt like I was vanishing. I saw my mother disappearing, and it frightened me. The feeling is indescribably terrifying, to sense the absence of substance. I lived, I breathed, I played, I sang, I wept, and I loved, but I was hardly a woman. How can culture, something that’s supposed to free you, bind you in shackles? What is woman? In Chinese culture, woman is gentle, kind, soft-spoken, and deferent to her husband as the head. No! Impossible! She is man’s counterpart. She is his beginning and his end. She is constant. She is steady. She is like a phoenix. But man betrayed her. The second she fell behind him in flight, he caged her. He bound her nose, gouged out her eyes, and cut out her tongue. In his eyes, she was useless. So he set fire to her. He lamented it after he found not her beautiful song in the morning but silence. Consumed by the friendly fires that bore her and through such a burning and searching of depths unfathomed amidst the hottest flames, miraculously her plumage grew brighter, as golden as the fiercest sun. The first part of the Chinese proverb is correct; the latter is questionable. You see, the second is my perception of woman. It is my unique invention of what woman is and how she came to be. It delights my imagination to know that she has endless beginnings. She cannot cease to exist completely. Perhaps, she may be taunted myopically by man but not effaced. Few know that the fire that consumed her was of her own doing. The phoenix bursts into flames not because someone sets fire to it, but because that is the course of the phoenix. Woman had a course. Her death was by no outward igniting. She died in her own time and man knelt by her ashes only to find that she resurrected and was more whole than he could ever be.
Mr. Kiewiet De Jonge—my world history teacher. He is the time traveler, the wandering and displaced nomad, the daring explorer, and the restless voyager. He begged Socrates not to drink the hemlock juice, blazed through the valley of the Kings by Ramses’ side, saw the fall of Troy, and rebuilt Rome with Aeneas. He is the inventor—the story teller, or in modern terms, historian. We called him teacher. In the beginning I possessed no conviction. Inwardly I was starving, haggardly, wretched. He did not tell me what woman was. He showed me what people are—ironically, what man is, in the broadest sense, and all that he has conquered throughout the ages. What catharsis! No more was the tyrannical despot that kept my thoughts in darkness. What is woman? Surely not the shattered girl I saw ten years ago. Surely that was not her fate—an end tantamount to death. Woman. She is still a mystery, a myriad of things, but never empty. It would take man lifetimes to understand her. In the process, Chinese unraveled with me. America has 2,000 years of history. The Chinese have 5,000. Surely, 5,000 years did not pass to leave its young people as slaves in captivity. I would not be a slave. I would be a person, a woman who ventured into the streets of the city, braving the people and darkness to see the lights. Tradition would not squander me. Young people should not have to be slaves. Children should not have to starve. If they must starve, let them starve of false visions. When I was young, I saw merely the silhouette, a vignette of tradition. Now I do not see shadows. The constellations have spared me. I feel an impromptu amphitheater of courage has built itself around me—its orchestra playing a symphony of truth and journey. I am a woman seeking illumination.

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